Home | Flourishing in Life | Psychology of Wellness | Emotions | Emotion Article Archive | Emotional Patterns
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 2016
The tug and movement of feeling flows through our bodies and puts in movement responses. We should recognize the process and intervene when habitual responses are unproductive.
He watches football all day, she sulks; he silently glares, she shouts; he insults, she slams the door. Recognizing reoccurring patterns provides opportunity to intervene, extinguishing unproductive reactions with purposeful action. We can interrupt these damaging cycles; we will be punched and kicked by forces beyond our control, but success doesn’t depend on a constant flow of favorable circumstances. With skillful adaptation, we manage the difficult, inviting more promising futures to rise from the ashes of the destruction.
Emotions are dumbfounding; logical to a point, but sometimes the cause is hidden, leaving us grasping for straws in the stacks of complexity. The blurred cause of feelings (whether excited or depressed) leans upon conceptual explanations, evaluating environments, experiences and socially expected responses. We assign meaning, causes, and rightness—a subjective practice to arrive at an appropriate emotion. Typically, the further we drift from healthy living, loving relationships and financial security the more creative our stories become to explain the internal pushes that led to bizarre and hurtful behaviors. We see the oddness in other’s justifying stories; but overlook our craziness—even defensively responding with outrage if questioned.
The wise pause, and then attempt to objectively examine the absurdities—only with awareness can normal and productive behaviors be restored. For sanity, and the sake a healthy future, we must challenge driving feelings, asking ourselves, “Are these actions conducive to obtaining my goals?” Sometimes we naturally are pushed towards effective action, other times, our pattern reactions are destructive; we yell at the person we live, steal from the company employing us, or eat foods that depress. Anger, sadness, shame and guilt erupt from experience, signaling importance. Sometimes these emotions appropriately signal approaching danger. The event triggering the process leading to emotion rightfully registers happenings, labeling them as important to safety, security and acceptance; other times emotions are askew, and need to be challenged not obeyed.
Patterns often magnify the visibility of problems, illuminating unhealthy actions so we can rid ourselves of the foolishness. But we first must look. Often, even dramatic patterns of destruction are missed, excused and repeated.
The feeling-behavior cycle consists of distinct parts as we move from the initiating feelings, conceptual understanding and a behavioral response. Recognizing the movement of experience through this cycle empowers us to intervene, avoiding the repeated disappointing ending. Even a slight flash of insight may unveil other associated phases, slowing the flow to a blind automatic response. A mindful intrusion into an unconscious cycle is the goal. Without awareness, we never can effectively distinguish between healthy motivations and the blistering reactions that haunt our relationships and cripple futures, leaving us condemned to justify rather than rectify.
Our interpretation of the importance of a trigger, for the most part, is socially constructed. Biologically our sensitivities may differ, but experience transforms natural sensitivities into real life meanings. Past pain and pleasures give order to new encounters, giving meaning and creating concepts. Extremes, whether painful or pleasant, forge strong connections, binding external stimuli to powerful feeling affects. New encounters containing elements associated with these extremes ignite powerful responses. We learn dangers and opportunities through experience; our souls leap or shrink, primed to act depending on the coloring from the past. These connections are highly subjective, igniting reactive responses that may not be effective in the present.
Life is more complex than simple cause and effect connections. We discuss cause and effect to formulate an understanding of the process. But life events have numerous cause and numerous effects. Long chains of actions colliding in the present and resulting in a consequence.
"We learn dangers and opportunities through experience; our souls leap or shrink, primed to act depending on the coloring from the past."
Traumatic and chaotic experiences create confusion; the onslaught of information overwhelms processing, too much too quick to construct clear concepts useful for future predictions. We subconsciously cast a large net, gathering data surrounding the experience. The swells of information contribute to powerful emotions in the future, even when a present encounter may only contain a single element associated with the past trauma—sounds, sights, smell and people. Through the learning process, we form biases. We shape expectations. Severe trauma dramatically impacts future responses to even mundane slightly similar encounters.
We achieve security through structure that limits surprises. When life drifts from the expected, we must put on mental brakes and respond with new calculations. Often this is discomforting, even for slight deviations. When events conflict with expectations, we experience anxiety, requiring a shifting of gears to reassess and make changes; or just collapse and complain life isn’t fair. Whichever path we follow adds to our conceptual evaluation of the trigger. When we fail to successfully navigate a life event, the triggering picks up new baggage, increasing force, multiplying the anxiety when faced with the same (or similar) events in the future. Often, unaware of personal patterns, we chaotically respond, stabbing at the dark to soothe erupting feelings, but the anxiety ridden moments overwhelm our systems and sabotage the outcomes.
We need awareness of disrupting actions. Emotional upheavals examined singularly, excluding contexts and ignoring pasts may confuse; instead of gain wisdom, we explode, justify, and brace for the next chaotic event. Once aware, we must respond with plans for more effective action. This may be difficult if we always have reacted with impulsiveness. Humility and professional guidance may be required.
Upon entering a new relationship, a young friend remarked, “I just want to go into the mountains for a few days and scream.” She previously had never successfully navigated the attachment cycle—attraction, romance, commitment, vulnerability. Therefore, new opportunities spiked fear. She didn’t know how to act. Her past failures created increasing anxiety with each new failed relationship.
To avoid repeating painful episodes, we excruciatingly examine every detail for signs of impending doom. But when we lack a foundation of successful examples, we’re not certain what we are looking for. With lack of experience, we must draw information from a wider net, not sure what is significant and what is not. Guided experience can help us refine this process. Any new relationship with promises of closeness may trigger emotions, flush with confusion and eventual overwhelm—to the point we want to explode, running into the mountains to scream.
We constantly scan environments for perceived threats; a process largely cloaked in unconsciousness. Detection of the slightest threat ignites a chemical change, preparing the body to respond. Threats take many shapes. The enemy, the crook, slights to personal value, or distancing from a valued relationship. A raised voice, an angry look, or an uncomfortable question can trigger feeling, reminding of the past and constructing powerful emotions.
"But when we lack a foundation of successful examples, we’re not certain what we are looking for. With lack of experience, we must draw information from a wider net, not sure what is significant and what is not."
We react to experience; negative experience creates discomfort. It’s automatic. It’s going to happen unless we emotionally disconnect. Avoiding all discomfort is a fruitless battle. We’ll never win. Nor, in my opinion, do we want to win. Well-being, the overall enjoyment of life, depends on successful navigation of discomforting emotions not avoiding them. A skilled approach allows discomfort to run a natural course, signaling a threat, grabbing our attention, and initiating a response.
Ideally, the we move from the motivating event to appropriate response. But, again, life is complex. The cycle from trigger to response moves unconsciously along and we haphazardly stumble through the same destructive routines. Even when we recognize a reoccurring cycle, if we don’t know an effective response, the experience will still dumbfound, stir anxiety, and lead to perplexing and unhealthy actions. Instead of repairing a momentary rupture in connection, we panic and run for the hills.
Often, we adapt to threats with defensiveness, justifications, or avoidance. We escape the momentary disrupting feelings without effectively addressing the problem.
Few, perhaps none, master the art of living. After decades of intentional effort and constant study, I’m still view myself as a novice. I occasionally curse discomfort and beg for escape; perhaps a good scream in the mountains would help. But other times, understanding and acceptance prevail; the emotions run their normal course and depart.
Feelings come quickly, serve their warning and depart; our thinking often exasperates and delays the process. Our thoughts give the feeling prick deeper meaning, turning the small trickle of feeling into a catastrophic explosion of emotion. We create stories, attributing disaster to mundane events and furiously respond. The story derails natural feeling signals. Our story aggravates or soothes the original feeling. When we create calamity out of small disruptions, unneeded drama disrupts peace, encourages inappropriate action and spoils futures. When we translate a partner’s slippage as a characteristic flaw, signaling selfishness, our emotions respond to these cataclysmic interpretations rather than the reality of a little rudeness which in the scheme of things really isn’t that important.
Past emotional collapses become an integral part of the present. They spill over into the now, creating new fears--a fear of life. We say, “I am improving,” but continue to vigilantly scan for the next overwhelming catastrophe. This becomes the pattern—improving followed by collapse. As a dear friend confessed, “I’m afraid to enjoy life because I know it won’t last.” A self-fulfilling prophesy. Her cautiousness to enjoy readily gives way to the constant flow of drama. Her view that life sucks will be amply supported with patterned thoughts defining small irritations as tragedy.
Changing patterned reaction is difficult. They are automatic and often unrecognized. The event, the feelings, the thoughts, and eventual emotions smoothly and effortlessly flow. Recognition of the unhealthy patterns proceed successful intervention. We may need help. Our mind explains, mitigates and absolves reoccurring transgressions against our futures. Others see through our defensive mechanisms and can call attention to the obvious. But will we listen? Somewhere change must be made; stopping the patterns that have habitually interfered with our lives. We must give a little more attention to behavior, a little less sulking, and no more screaming and slamming of doors.